I saw them for the first time the year I turned thirty. Three months apart. There they were, both of them, looking back at me in black and white photos that I held in my hand. One man in a white suit standing next to a car, with another man carrying a little girl. The other – alone in an open space – dressed in a white kaftan and hat. Both unfamiliar to me.

My father speaks very little about his father. What I know I have pieced together from the few passing references, fleeting memories, that he occasionally shares. All I know is that he had three wives. Goggo Larai, my father’s mother, who I knew as Goggo or Goggo Jos. Goggo Dije, who I only ever knew as Goggo Kaduna, and Tamalam, whom I never knew. He migrated from a northern state in Nigeria called Jigawa, and made his way to the middle belt of the country, eventually arriving in Plateau. I only recently learned his name – Mallam Ahmadu Adamu – and that he died on Monday 6 June 1966 at the relatively young age of fifty-six. 

With my paternal grandfather a mystery to me, it is a similar story on my mother’s side of the family. She barely remembers her father. What she does know she pieced together through faded childhood memories and a few nuggets of information her own mother shared over the years. She remembers his curly, wavy hair. She recalls him always being smartly dressed, in pin-stripe suits and two-tone shoes, ‘a very, very dapper man indeed. Always smiling. Very playful. Never raising his voice. Never angry. Always jolly, playing, laughing, joking, taking us for rides in the car’. 

She wasn’t yet ten when he died. She couldn’t even recall what his face looked like until her brother gave her a copy of a picture he came across in their mother’s house. This would be the same picture I would see, the first chance to see my grandfather, his features, his eyes, the way he carried himself. He came alive to us in that image, which was only a few years ago. That’s the first time my mother realised that her brother bore a striking resemblance to their father.

My maternal grandfather, Wilfred St Clair Nisbett, was born 3 or 4 October 1924 on the island of Nevis, a small piece of land in the Caribbean Sea that forms the inner arc of the Leeward Islands chain of the West Indies. His father had died before, or shortly after his birth. After his father’s death, his mother decided to return to St Kitts to bring him up. Once back in her home town he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. Before he was two years old his mother died, and his grandmother became his primary carer. In St Kitts, like most islanders, my grandfather became a farmer, working a small holding and helping out at harvest time on the island’s larger plantations. 

In 1953 or 1955 my grandfather left his wife and the small Caribbean island of St Kitts for England. He, like many other men and women from all over the Caribbean, came at the invitation of the British government – the Mother Country – to help rebuild the nation after World War II. He arrived at Southampton in either September or October, and went straight to Birmingham as he had relatives already living there who, when he had alerted them to his impending arrival, had found work for him. Six weeks after he stepped on these shores, his wife, my grandmother, Pearlita Jarvis, docked at Southampton. She stayed in Ipswich with a cousin for a brief period before travelling to Birmingham to join my grandfather. My mother is still not sure what kind of work her father did. However, my uncle believes he was involved in construction – building roads and houses. The hard labour eventually took its toll and he fell ill in early 1968, was taken to hospital and never came back home. He was buried in Birmingham in March 1968. He was forty-three years old. 

This was all I knew of my grandfathers. There was still so much I wanted to learn about these two men who lived in different parts of the world – one on the African continent, the other in the African Diaspora – and who were of different religions – one Muslim, the other Christian. Two men who moved through spaces – one migrating internally, the other migrating internationally. I yearned to see their contrasting identities in mine, and feel their histories in my present. It was difficult as I had minimal biographical information to draw on. Their lives were a blank space in the recesses of my imagination and my understanding of my forefathers. I desperately wanted to fill that space, and it wasn’t until I looked to black music, that I managed to do so. It was music of that generation that helped me build a connection to my grandfathers.

I envisioned the sounds of their era – flutes and talking drums, calypso, ska. Music is how I tried to represent them and place myself deeply alongside them both. Such sounds are, of course, only part of their story, but it is the part I could most easily understand and use to come to terms in shaping, defining, and constructing what these men may have been like. Sound is also the part I knew I could connect the most with, as music travels everywhere with me. 

I started the process of discovery with my paternal grandfather. I knew less about Hausa music. Caribbean music was already a part of me, as I grew up in a home where the sounds of calypso, soca, reggae and lovers rock were on constant repeat. Having been raised in the south-western part of Nigeria, I was more familiar with the sounds of Afrobeat, juju and fuji music, which are traditionally the music of the Yorubaland. Highlife was another genre that was present. So, I dug deep into Hausa music, as a means of re-creating forgotten imagined memories of my grandfather’s past. 

A predominantly Muslim group in northern Nigeria, the language of the Hausa, which my grandfather spoke, spread widely from northern Nigeria to the Niger Republic and to other parts of West Africa – stretching to Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia and Senegal. I would discover that there isn’t a single word for musicians in Hausa culture, as the creation of music is more associated with activities – drumming (kidaa), singing (waakaa) and blowing (buusaa). The folk music played by the people of the north is known for its complex percussion instruments, including the one- or two-stringed goje, the two-or three-stringed molo, the one- or two-stringed kontigi or the smaller one-stringed bowed kukuma (all lutes), the kakaki (trumpets), kuge, and the gangan, tambari and kalangu (drums of various sizes). 

Hausa popular music mainly grew from two distinct nineteenth-century traditions: urban classical music, comprised of rok’on fada (state ceremonial music) and yabon sarakai (court praise singing) and rural folk music or popular music. This reflected the highly stratified structure of the society, in which the emir holds the highest political and social position. Marookaa – musicians and praise singers – are the same level as griots, in the broadly lowest rank. Royal musicians, due to the association with royalty, rank near the top of the marooku class, while boori musicians, due to their associations with card players and drinkers, are ranked at the bottom. Islam also plays a role in this ranking – as royal musicians are ‘outwardly devout Muslims’.

Musicians were enlisted for armies and orchestras took up residence in emir’s palaces. Ceremonial music is probably the most esteemed form of music in Hausa society, with the emir controlling the occasions for the performance of state ceremonial music. This was often during sara, which is the weekly statement of authority on Fridays outside the emir palace, religious festivals, visits from other emirs or important people, and as weddings and births within the emir’s family. Instruments, such as the tambari and kakaki are prestigious royal musical instruments, with royal arrivals announced by thekakaki. Hausa music also has a strong praise song vocal tradition drawing heavily on Hausa proverbs in a poetic manner and reflecting free-rhythmic improvisation. In a court praise singers’ band, although the instrumental is important, emphasis is usually on vocalisation as the main vehicle of communication. 

During the 1930s and 1940s, radio became part of the public urban space in Northern Nigeria, with its sounds flowing onto the city streets through public listening stations for the vast majority of Hausa listeners or homes (for those who could afford it). Although programming consisted largely of BBC programmes made in England, BBC Arabic broadcasts and Indian and English records, Hausa singers, such as Hamisu Maiganga and later, Mamman Shata, were also big in the 1940s and were played heavily on the wireless. Alhaji Mamman Shata was a well-known griot/musician whose vocals were often accompanied by talking drums, such as kalangu.Hindi music was also extremely popular in Northern Nigeria – although its popularity soared in the 1960s – after my grandfather had passed away – as more soundtracks from popular Hindi films were introduced via radio and cinema houses. 

I imagined my grandfather would have listened to these sounds, these different melodies and rhythms. So, I immersed myself in them – creating playlists of Hausa music that I could access from that era, such as songs by praise singer Dan Maraya Jos including ‘Wak’ar Karen Mota’ (‘Song of the Driver’s Mate’), and ‘Yan Arewa Ku Bar Barci, Najeriyarmu Akwai Dad’I’ (Northerners Stop Sleeping, Our Nigeria is a Pleasant Place) by Mamman Shata.

Around the same period, many miles away, the music of St Kitts and Nevis, which included the big drum ensembles and community brass bands took off, and frequently accompanied folk singers. Big drum or string band music accompanied the various groups who performed during the Christmas period – from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve. Most well known was the St Kitts Defence Force Band, formed in 1932 (although some sources claim it was 1938) by Edgar Samuel Bridgewater, which often served to introduce young men from working class backgrounds to music. The St Kitts Brass Band founded by William ‘Doc’ Davis in 1933 was also popular. By the mid-1940s these bands, including the Police Military Brass Band, would perform regular band concerts at Pall Mall Square (later called Independence Square) at the Bay Front. In addition to the big drum, a range of instruments accompanied the lilting, rhythmic sounds of Caribbean music – guitars including the cuatro, fife, triangle, and the shak-shak, which is also known as the maracas in countries such as Cuba and Venezuela.

The following decade saw the introduction of the Trinidadian style steelpans, introduced by Lloyd Matheson, CBE, then an education officer. The first steelpan band was Roy Martin’s Wilberforce Steel Pan. Prior to that, bands used makeshift percussion instruments. Steelpans quickly became popular and steelbands became the most coveted sound, dominating private and public social events and dances. Demand for this new sound led to the decline of the horn-based orchestra and the big drum, both of which had previously been in vogue. This surge in popularity led to an explosion of steelbands, with the most popular bands featured at major dances and orchestras including the Music Makers, Rhythm Kings, Brown Queen, and Silver Rhythm Combo.

 Then there was calypso. Originating in Trinidad, where enslaved people employed the narrative style and coded lyrics to mock their masters and the ruling classes. The music established itself and evolved into the first modern Caribbean music to make an impact on the wider world. From Trinidad, calypso spread across the Caribbean, and became a major part of Kittitian (or Kittian) and Nevisian music with the introduction of calypso competitions in the 1950s. Until the early 1940s, ‘calypso-like’ songs in St Kitts were called ‘country dance’ and kwelbe. Veteran calypsonians from this period included the Mighty Saint, Lord Harmony, King Monow, Mighty Kush, Lord Mike, and Elmo Osborne.

While the Hausa’s, like my grandfather, mostly migrate internally within Nigeria or to neighbouring west African countries, Caribbean’s migrate both within the Caribbean, and to North America and Europe. Principal destinations were New York City and London.  And Caribbean’s literally brought their music with them when they migrated. Inspired by the fact that migration has been a feature of both Hausa-speaking people in West Africa and English-speaking Caribbean societies, I continued to follow my grandfathers, specifically my maternal grandfather, to Britain, through music. 

Indeed, the history of British music – Black British music – cannot be divorced from Caribbean music. The British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, traced the story and impact of the first wave of Caribbean music to reach Britain, and found that ‘since West Indians first began to settle in Britain in large numbers after the Second World War, a succession of black musics have transformed the British music scene’. The Windrush generation – my maternal grandparents’ generation – made a significant contribution to British black music – from calypso, ska, bluebeat and reggae, to gospel to lovers rock, from roots and dub, to drum to jungle to rap, dancehall, to techno and house, to UK garage to grime. 

Once in the UK, I wondered what my maternal grandfather listened to? Most documentary evidence that is available concerns Trinidad and the evolution of calypso, which, according to Lloyd Bradley, became ‘the official sound-track of black Britain’ in the 1950s and early 1960s. I thought to myself, did he listen to the music of Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner – two Kings of Calypso that were on the SS Empire Windrush that docked at Tilbury in 1948.

Calypso to me was part and parcel of the West Indian migrant community and their experiences in the UK. I used it, the same way I used books such as Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon and Small Island by Andrea Levy, to offer insights into the early days of the migrant experience, and in my case my grandfather’s experience. I kept coming back to Stuart Hall’s words, ‘this is the music of a minority who have travelled to a strange or strangely familiar place in search of a better life and are determined to survive and prosper’.

I listened to calypso songs such as Lord Invader’s 1959 ‘Teddy Boy Calypso (Bring Back The Cat-O-Nine)’ – about racial attacks in parts of the London. As well as, ‘Black Power’ and ‘If You’re Brown’ about the experiences of being a Caribbean migrant newly arrived in London.

Along with the music also came the house parties and sound systems. Radio stations weren’t playing Caribbean music back then. Instead, sound systems were played at house parties – with DJs, rappers and singers and women of the house running the bar in the kitchen.I had heard that my grandmother had thrown these in her home in Birmingham in her younger days – I wondered if they continued while my grandfather was still alive. 

Playlists of 1950s and 1960s calypso, as well as ska of the 1960s provided the foundation of what would blossom into my unique relationship with my maternal grandfather. In addition to Lord Kitchner’s song it also included ‘The Lion’s Tick! Tick! (The Story of The Lost Watch)’, Marie Bryant’s ‘Don’t Touch Me Nylon’ and Millie Small’s 1964 recording of ‘My Boy Lollipop’. My geography – their geography – made the Caribbean, West Africa, and Western Europe essential parts of my core. This also means my world is one where Black African, African Diasporic, Islamic, Christian, and European civilisations met, clashed, and blended. Shaped by various cultures ethnically divided by slavery and colonialism, I was in a state of uncertainty about my grandfathers. I stared at their photos. The first, my maternal grandfather. The second, my paternal grandfather. A sense of familiarity and excitement now comes over me. 

I am still not fully aware of them  – the sound of their laughter, the lilt of their voice. But, like my grandparents before me, and even my own parents, I continue to travel – putting down roots in Western Europe, North America, and more recently Southern Europe. With me, I carry our tradition – through the sounds that these two men were probably surrounded with and might even have listened to during their time. Their music, which over the decades evolved into my music of jazz, blues, Afrobeats, reggae, dancehall, grime, hip-hop, pop, and now calypso and soca – genres which travel with me wherever I go, and now so do my grandfathers.

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